The Norwich Cadets enter this weekend’s Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) East championship looking to win the one title that eluded them last season.
Although Norwich won the 2011 National Championship, a few weeks prior, the Cadets didn’t even know if they were going to make the NCAA Tournament after losing, 4-2, to Manhattanville in the ECAC East finals.
Luckily for Norwich, it edged out Plattsburgh for the final Pool C “at-large” bid into the tournament, and the rest was history. The Cadets downed Gustavus Adolphus, 5-4, and RIT, 5-2, on their way to claiming their first national title in just the program’s fourth season of existence.
“It’s kind of a weird situation that we were in having won the national championship last year but not our league,” said Norwich coach Mark Bolding. “We were fortunate to be playing in the championships and got it done, but that’s all behind us now and this is a new year.”
Indeed it is a new year, but Norwich has, for the most part, picked up right where it left off last season, as the Cadets have been ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 the entire season and carry a 23-2-1 overall record into this weekend.
“We’ve had some games that haven’t been grade ‘A’ games by any means, but our record is solid and we’re scoring a lot of goals,” Bolding said. “Sometimes we’ve run into that issue of how you keep a team grounded and motivated day in and day out that’s had the ultimate success of winning a national championship. I think we are a different team than last year, but we still feel like we’re right there.”
As has been the norm for Norwich over its five-year history, NU has put together a tremendous second half record, winning 13 of 14 games in 2012 so far. The Cadets also wrapped up their second straight unbeaten ECAC East regular season, and currently hold a 39-game unbeaten streak against league opponents.
“We’ve played pretty solid in the second half,” Bolding said. “We tried just like last year to set up the best (seven game) nonconference schedule we could for this year. We lost to RIT and Amherst, but to come out of those seven games with a 5-2 record is pretty good.”
Those five nonconference wins have come against perennial powers Plattsburgh (twice in overtime), Middlebury, Elmira, and Bowdoin.
“Statistically, we’re scoring more goals, so it’s a higher offensive team. We thought maybe with the loss of Sophie Leclerc we wouldn’t score as many goals and we might struggle a little bit in that department, but it hasn’t been the case.”
Offense has been about the farthest thing from Norwich’s problem, as the Cadets lead the nation, averaging a blistering 6.23 goals per game. NU also has eight players with 30 or more points. The next closest team with that many players over 30 points is RIT with three.
“We’ve had a couple underclassmen step up and rise to the occasion,” Bolding said. “Jillayne DeBus is having an unbelievable year, and we’ve got a couple of fantastic freshmen in Kaycie Anderson and Tyne Gove that are offensively pretty solid.”
Even with the spread out scoring, the offense has still been anchored by the odds-on Laura Hurd Award favorite Julie Fortier.
The senior forward was just named the ECAC East Player of the Year after leading the nation in scoring with 26 goals and 23 assists for 49 points. She also broke Leclerc’s program all-time points record against Salve Regina on Feb. 17. She currently has 88 goals and 81 assists for 169 points to rank 10th on the all-time D-III scoring list.
“The teams that have played us a lot over the past couple of years haven’t gone away without knowing who Julie is,” Bolding said. “She’s a dynamic offensive player that has gotten better at both ends of the ice throughout her career because of a great work ethic.”
Norwich also hasn’t been too shabby on the defensive side of the puck this season either. The Cadets rank second in total defense, surrendering just 1.08 goals per game. Seven of the 28 goals they’ve given up this year came in a wild 8-7 overtime win at Plattsburgh on Feb. 8.
“We know that if we are going to have any success, we have to hone in on team defense and just play sound hockey,” Bolding said. “We think we’re heading in the right direction, but there is a lot of parity this year, so we don’t know what is going to happen.”
One of the brightest spots this season has been the emergence of sophomore goaltender Kelly Fisk as a true No. 1 goalie. Fisk has compiled a 16-1-0 record with a 1.27 goals against average and a .926 save percentage to go along with a program single-season record seven shutouts.
“Kelly has been a pleasant surprise,” Bolding said. “Our goalie coach Dana Bean thought she had some great potential, and now she’s showing it. We gave her some big games early and she responded well. She’s developed into the No. 1 that we had hoped for. She is still raw and isn’t a household name yet, but she’ll have her chance with plenty more big games to come.”
For the second straight season, Norwich University and Kreitzberg Arena will play host to both the ECAC East men’s and women’s championship weekends.
“It should be an exciting weekend; we’re happy to host, but hopefully we’ve learned our lesson from last year and that will help us get it done this weekend,” Bolding said.
Standing in the Cadets’ way of a potential rematch with Manhattanville on Sunday afternoon will be in-state foe Castleton. Under first-year head coach Bill Bowes, the Spartans have made it to the ECAC East final four for the first time in program history.
“We’re not looking by Castleton,” Bolding said. “They are a much-improved team that is well organized, and I think the coaching change has done well for them. We’ve got to bring our A game, because at this stage in the game a hot goaltender or an off night by your special teams could result in a loss. We’ve got to play disciplined hockey.”
Manhattanville faces off with New England College in the first semifinal on Saturday at noon. The Valiants have won eight of the 10 ECAC East Tournament championships, including seven straight from 2002 to 2008 before Norwich finally broke the streak and won in 2009 and 2010.
“Manhattanville is very consistent over the years as far as getting there and getting the job done,” Bolding said. “Maybe they aren’t the same team that they were last year, but we’re very nervous of them. They’ve got the ability, and are a great hockey team.”
Norwich beat Manhattanville, 6-1, in the only meeting between the two schools this season on Jan. 20. It was just the third time the Cadets had beaten Manhattanville in 10 tries.